The Art of Asking for Fewer Gifts

by Thursday Bram on 17 January 2011 4 comments
Photo: mmlolek

This year, my family gave me gifts, carefully picking out a variety of different things that they hoped would make me happy. I did the same for them. But, somehow, after all the wrapping paper was thrown away and the thank you notes were written, I didn't feel very wonderful about all the things I had received.

I have one relative that sends me a long chatty letter every year along with a check. I love the letters, but I certainly wouldn't mind if she just skipped the check — I don't need it. I have another relative who carefully chooses Christmas tree ornaments for my husband and I, but hasn't actually asked if we even have a Christmas tree (we don't). I appreciate the thought, but the gift itself means that I'm going to have to find something to do with it.

I feel like a bad person for it, but I don't want my relatives to go out shopping for all these gifts for me or sending me money or anything like that. I'd much rather a few more chatty letters or the occasional visit. But I know that my family cherishes the opportunity to do something nice for one another (even I enjoy going out and finding what I hope are favorite gifts). Finding a way to express my preferences for fewer gifts has been a difficult process and isn't nearly over. But I'm working on improving this particular art form.

Think About What You Truly Want

At the end of the day, I do like getting gifts. I like knowing that my family and friends want to go out of their way to do something nice for me — and I think that's true of most people. It's just the end results that bother me: I don't want to have to find a home for some knickknack that I only keep because a family member gave it to me.

One of the best gifts I've ever received was when I convinced my grandmother that all I wanted was for her to bake me up a batch of my favorite cookies. I truly wanted those cookies (a treat I didn't normally get) far more than anything she could have given me.

Just sitting and thinking about the gifts that I really have enjoyed and loved has provided me some insights on what I want and how to ask for those items. I love the handmade gifts I've received. My favorite blanket, tasty treats, and other homemade gifts are what I remember with the most fondness.

The tough part is telling my friends and family that I cherish these gifts far more than a check or another purchase. Trying to tell relatives that I don't want their money can go very wrong. When I have these conversations, I want to talk about the fact that I appreciate what they do for me and the matter is not that I don't want their gifts. It's incredibly difficult to gracefully say that you'd prefer something other than what your family members have been giving you, and it requires as much sensitivity as you can find.

Consider Helping Others 

One of the simplest approaches I've found to the gift question is telling family members that I appreciate the thought but, if they were thinking of sending me a check or a gift card anyhow, I'd love if they just sent it directly to my favorite charity.

Of course, there is that occasional relative who will make a donation in your name and then turn around and still give you something, but that's a situation you'll have to talk about with the giver.

It Isn't a Matter of Giving Less

No matter my own preferences, I try not to give fewer gifts out. Part of the matter is that I love giving gifts (although, over the past few years, I've been trying to focus on giving meaningful gifts, homemade where possible). But I also don't want to offend anyone or give the feeling that I don't appreciate them.

Not too long ago, there was a Miss Manners column where someone wrote in with a question: A relative had switched to making donations in family members' names rather than giving gifts. It was to the giver's preferred charity, and the giver seemed to still prefer receiving gifts rather than donations. The question was about how to handle the situation.

In my mind, every aspect of that situation was problematic. I want to be able to give my family exactly what they want — and, despite any hope I have of rising above wanting gifts myself, I want them to give me exactly what I want. It just so happens that the things I want (to make donations to a favorite charity or a homemade batch of cookies) don't quite match up with what my family expects to give. At the end of the day, if keeping my family happy means finding another knickknack a home, I'm happy to do it.

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Guest

I've got lots to do today, but this has been question on my mind as of late. Why do we give gifts? Well, I think there are two sides to the story, first there's the giver. The giver loves to see the reaction on the person's face to whom the gift is going to. I know I do. I love the wrapping process, the unwrapping process, and finally the delight of the receiving person. "Oh, it's just nothing." I say sheepishly. But then the receiver exclaims, "I love it!" or "It's just what I wanted! How did you know?" That is truly a giver's moment!
For the giver, a check in the mail or charity donation just doesn't cut it. Don't get me wrong, it's great to give to charities or cash in the mail, but it cuts out all the reactions to the gift giving process and reactions.
Now onto the second side of the story, the receiver of gifts. From the standpoint of the receiver, it is so nice to receive gifts of thoughtfulness! I cherish a gift from a friend who took the time to get to know me throughout the year and gave me gifts that I either really wanted when we were out shopping together, couldn't afford, or just plain needed. You're correct in your summary that "stuff" is not more of what we need too! Someone's collections is not going to be your collection if you give more of it to them.
As I said there are two sides to this story, but somehow I would feel remiss, if I didn't tie it all up with this. Presence is the most valuable thing you can give to a person. Not just at Christmas time, but throughout the year. Whether it's a phone call, visit, going for coffee, or shopping trip, presence is truly what we need more of from each other. Those times with family and friends are so much more sweeter when we spend it together.

Guest's picture

This is such a delicate matter, isn't it? - accepting unwanted gifts from loved ones, trying to figure out whether it's worth it to wound the person by letting them know you're not really into what they're giving you. Seems like a good solution in your case would be to accept those checks and make the donation to charity yourself...that way if your charity of choice changes over the years you can redirect the money as desired. As for the unwanted knickknacks and so forth - giving them a new home on Freecycle is a way to get rid of them AND feel good about yourself since you're giving them to someone who actually WANTS the stuff! And maybe if you continue to give homemade gifts, the recepients will get the drift and remember that THAT is what you're in to!

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claire7676

VERY well said!! I completely agree with Kristina. My issue is the exact same with my Dad & his girlfriend. They love shopping at garage sales, which is fine; whatever floats their boat. I suspect our holiday gifts are finds from the garage sale ventures, which is perfectly fine, it doesn't matter to me. However, I think they have a "preset spending limit" in mind for our gifts. Because they get stuff so cheap, they feel that they have to give us a LOT of stuff at the holidays. Not only is most of this stuff COMPLETELY not useful to us, but it almost makes me feel almost awkward because it's such a deluge of gifts; there is absolutely no way we can (or even want to) reciprocate that. Also, I don't know how many times I have mentioned/complained about how our home is way too small for us. I really don't know why it doesn't dawn on them that they're giving us stuff we have NO room for!!

I love them to pieces but I would honestly rather get nothing. I enjoy spending time with them more than anything.

It's always a struggle for me to name gifts I want when asked. I have finally decided to scope out upcoming events and name museum tickets or tickets to another event as my gifts from now on. I have enough Stuff! :)

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Amy

If they ask, or if you have the type of relationship where you can suggest gift ideas, it might be good to ask for events or experiences instead of stuff. Bungee-jumping tickets, museum tickets, a massage, trip to the aquarium for your family, cooking classes, a stay at a hotel while the givers babysit, tickets to a sports event or concert, scuba diving lessons...really, anything that interests you. If you know they're strapped for cash, ask them to teach you how to do something (play guitar, make a family-famous recipe, do a tune-up on your car) and make an event out of it. You'll still be excited to receive it and therefore gratify their desire to make you happy (honestly, I find it boring and a little weird to give money to a charity on behalf of someone else), but you won't have to worry about it cluttering your home.